Michele Sordal on creating balance

Dropbox supply chain manager Michele Sordal shares her experience building teams and balancing career and family

Michele Sordal joined Dropbox a year ago to build the supply chain team from scratch. Here she shares her career path, her experience balancing family and career, and what she looks for in building her team.

How long have you been in the Bay Area?

Off and on, my whole life. I grew up in the Bay Area and went to college down in Southern California. When I graduated, I actually moved to Central America for a couple of years and then came back.

I started working here in the Bay Area, got married, had two kids, moved to the East Coast, then came back in 1990.

What was your first job out of college?

I lived in El Salvador when I was 21 and taught English as a second language to everyone from the poorest people to government officials. It was a good learning experience for me.

When I came back to the Bay Area, I worked as a temp on a congressional campaign.

How did you get into supply chain management?

It was very fortunate. In my younger years, I worked for a company and a boss that allowed me to do things that I wanted to do.

I started out in the quality organization, and I worked with people from different groups. I’d say, “This looks interesting. Can I try it?”

I started moving through different groups as a result of that. It was a management team that said, “Yeah, sure, go ahead. You can try it.”

Michele and Noble Athimattathil from the tech ops team meet in the Dropbox cafeteria at the San Francisco office. / Photo by Kara Brodgesell

And that led you to get a master’s degree in procurement and contracts?

My undergraduate degree is in sociology, and originally I wanted to be a social worker. But there were no jobs when I graduated from college.

I went in and got any job, as some people do. But I always looked for something interesting, where I could learn.

I thought I might go into a technical field, so I started learning how to read schematics and diagnose quality issues in hardware. I did final testing for hardware before it shipped.

Then I took a couple of classes and finally wound up in purchasing. I really liked it and expanded from there. It was at that point that I went for the master’s, after I knew what I wanted to do.

It sounds like you had a great relationship with your boss early on. What did you learn from him as a mentor?

If there was something I was or wasn’t doing well, he’d say it. It’s about not being afraid to give that feedback.

Now I always have the confidence to say what I need to say. You don’t have to agree — you just have to hear the feedback.

How do you establish that kind of relationship?

You have to model it. When someone is talking to you — whether you agree or not — you have to say, I hear you.

What are you working on lately?

I’m in the supply chain group. When I first came to Dropbox, I was brought on to establish that process and organization. It’s the same thing I did at Facebook as the first person in procurement and vendor management.

How did you decide that you wanted to take on that challenge again, starting a team from scratch?

Because it’s just loads of fun. I’m addicted to it. I’m addicted to hypergrowth — coming in at the ground floor and establishing it. That’s where I shine and where I do best.

How has Dropbox changed since you started a year ago?

It’s still as exciting and fun as it was the first day. On the day I walked in, we had much less visibility into procurement, and now I have ’em all trained. (laughing)

We now have processes in place to make sure that we really establish the best possible vendor relationships for Dropbox.

What are some of the greatest challenges in your role right now?

It’s usually resources. You don’t have enough time in a day to do everything you want to do, so you have to learn to prioritize. It’s also bringing in new people ahead of when you need them, so that when you need them, they’re trained up and you can move the business forward.

I don’t look at anything as difficult, it’s just reprioritizing.

Michele Sordal builds her team around integrity, transparency, and open communication. / Photo by Dan Stroud

What’s most important to you in building your team?

Integrity, transparency, and open communication.

What makes your team unique?

I think it’s that we all have a passion for the company and the product. I have a lot of respect for my team.

What does a typical day look like for you lately?

When I first started, I did everything. I was trying to streamline processes and make it easier for other people to do their jobs. Now, it’s hiring and training, making sure my team has the tools they need.

What have been some of the greatest challenges in your career?

No matter where you work, the biggest challenge is trying to balance family and career. You will always give up a little bit of one for the other. The choice that I made was a little bit more on the career side, but my kids are fine.

I imagine that finding that balance is an ongoing process.

It is. You have to make that decision month over month, year over year at any company you work at and at every stage of your career. Now my kids are grown, but as they’re growing up, you have to make that decision. For me, it’s always been a struggle.

I actually did my master’s degree while working full-time with a two-year-old. Those were the most difficult two years.

What got you through it?

I have no idea! (laughing)

What kinds of things did you have to sacrifice?

During that time, it was getting out and having fun, going on vacations. But since then, we’ve traveled quite a bit.

I think that’s very important. I’ve had people work with me who don’t take vacations or work until late at night. I tell them to stop. You have to close your computer sometimes. You’ll have more longevity that way.

How do you approach managing people with different needs and goals, at different stages of life?

You do everything possible to promote what people want to do from a career standpoint and from a personal standpoint. If you manage an individual with their best interest in mind — not necessarily the interest of the company or yourself — then they will progress faster and better, and everybody wins.

How would you describe the Dropbox culture?

When I first walked into the lobby of this building, it felt like home.

The Dropbox tech ops team is hiring. We’d love for you to join us.